Over the past week I have been reading a couple of books by Lester Ruth; A Little Heaven Below: Worship at Early Methodist Quarterly Meetingsand Early Methodist Life and SpiritualityI would recommend both books to people who want to understand better early American Methodism, particularly what its worship was like.
In Early Methodist Life and Spirituality I came across the following quote: “Methodists found totally unacceptable any suggestion that there was some limit – particularly a God-determined limit – to the scope of God’s saving work in Christ.” (70)
Do we still find any suggestion that there are limits to the scope of God’s saving work in Christ totally unacceptable? It seems to me that people are much too quick to accept the limitations of life in this world as unavoidable and inevitable. I have noticed a tendency to quickly move to extremes when discussing the expectations of the Christian life that seem to work as a sort of defense mechanism…. “If all Christians did that, then I guess there just wouldn’t be any Christians anymore.” (Or something to that effect.)
This appears to be an expression of a lamentable failure of imagination. Part of what Lester Ruth seems to be suggesting is that early American Methodists refused to allow any restraints on God’s ability to save through Christ. If there were going to be limits, they would have to be elsewhere. This belief that God could fully save through Christ was expressed in two key ways: universal atonement (all can find salvation in Christ) and Christian perfection or entire sanctification (all can be made perfect in love).
In my experience (albeit limited), most Methodists find the idea of entire sanctification quaint, or even absurd. Yet, I long to see the ways in which God’s Spirit would move in Methodism again if we were to cease being so quick to rationalize our tendency to sin and instead stubbornly, adamantly, and unapologetically refuse to accept any limits to the scope of God’s saving work in Christ. The United Methodist Church is, after all, filled with ordained ministers who have answer in the affirmative the historic questions “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” This is not a work that we perform to merit God’s grace. On the contrary, the best answer to both of these questions is, “Yes, by the grace of God.”